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Sweet note: How Israel fell in love with Indian classical music

An academic writes about ragas, gurus and concerts.

music Updated: Jan 28, 2017 19:15 IST
David Shulman
David Shulman
Indian classical music,Indian culture,India Israel ties
INDIAN AND ISRAELI HIT: Carnatic musician TM Krishna speaks at the Jaipur Literary Festival in January 2016.(Sanjeev Verma/ HT Photo)

It may sound hard to believe, but it is possible that, outside of India, the most passionate audiences and connoisseurs of classical Indian music today are found in the tiny state of Israel (population some 8 million, far less than the size of one of the major Indian cities). To some extent, this strange fact reflects the continuous flow of Israeli tourists to India--tens of thousands each year. Some of them come for periods of several months, often after finishing their army service, needing to escape the relentless pressure cooker of life in Israel and its endemic violence. Israelis, like Jews generally, are restless people, curious about other lands and cultures, and India is undoubtedly one of their preferred destinations. For many of them, India provides forms of much-needed spiritual sustenance, an answer to their yearning for deeper meaning and experience. Many young Israelis study classical Hindustani music while in India at the feet of well-known vocalists, flautists, drummers, and violinists. When they come back home, they pass this knowledge on to others. The result is that there are large, sensitive audiences in Israel for any Indian musician who comes to perform.

To give only one example among many, there is the highly accomplished dhrupad singer and teacher Osnat Elkabir, who lived and studied in India for eleven years, initially, and continues to go back each year. Among her teachers were Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar and Zia Fariduddin Dagar (the latter taught her pakhawaj), Chattrapati Singh, and the great dhrupad singer Pandit Ritwik Sannyal in Varanasi. She also studied dance: Mohini Attam and Kudiyattam at the Kerala Kala Mandalam, and Kathak in the Bengali style with Buddhadev Caitanya. Osnat, who comes from a musical Baghdadi family, teaches large classes on classical Indian music at Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and she has large numbers of devoted students learning dhrupad (including myself). Her brothers Dudu and Yossi also perform regularly, the former on rudravina, the latter on tabla.

Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and Zia Fariduddin Dagar find Israeli fans.

Osnat sees musical education as creating a bridge between cultures, as only music can do so directly. Thus for several years Osnat has taught mixed groups of Palestinians and Israelis in the cooperative venture known as “Common Language”—that is, music. At a time when the barriers between Palestinians and Israelis seem to be almost impenetrable, and as fanatical politicians continually work to make these barriers even higher and more daunting, Indian music has become one possible, and oddly privileged, channel for communication between the communities.

Each year in the summer musicians who have learned Hindustani ragas gather for a night-long Ragamalika, usually in the Galilee mountains. Israeli rock musicians have also integrated ragas into their compositions. And Jerusalem hosts an international music festival, named after the Middle Eastern instrument, the Oud, each year, in which Hindustani musicians regularly perform along with classical Turkish, Greek, and Arabic vocalists, the latter particularly adored by a large segment of the population, whatever their political views.

Such passionate intensity and universal taste are hallmarks of artistic and intellectual life in Israel, and they have their counterparts in the Palestinian territories (still sadly under Israeli occupation). However, Carnatic music is still something of a newcomer to the Israeli arts scene. Hence the importance of the impending visit to Israel, including Palestinian east Jerusalem, of the great Carnatic singer T M Krishna, for a series of performances and a master class hosted by the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, the premier academic institution in the country. This initiative of the Academy of Sciences and its president, Professor Nili Cohen, clearly reflects the restless openness to cultural experiences from around the world that I have mentioned. But the choice of T M Krishna and Carnatic music is not coincidental. It is the natural extension of the fascination with the Hindustani system and of the lively interest in southern Indian languages and cultures in the Israeli universities (Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Sanskrit are regularly taught at the Hebrew University). Originally, there was hope of having a joint Israeli-Palestinian peace concert, a Middle Eastern Woodstock. The violent political situation made this impossible; but the mere fact that Palestinians and Israelis are coming together to learn the subtleties of Carnatic kritis from one of their greatest exponents offers some glimmer of hope for better days, when the two communities will live in peace and share artistic experiences in a normal way as part of their common humanity. I, for one, still believe such days will come.

(David Shulman is professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He teaches Sanskrit, Tamil, and Telugu, and courses on Indian civilisation, religion, and philosophy. He has published 20 books on topics relating to the cultural history of South India and is deeply involved in Carnatic music.)

First Published: Jan 28, 2017 19:15 IST